Front Cover: Bye Bye Babylone
Olivia Snaije

Bye Bye Babylone Beyrouth 1975-1979

By Lamia Ziadé

Denoël Graphic, Paris, October 2010 Illustrated in colour throughout. Pbk, 304pp, €25.00,

A Child’s View of War

Lamia Ziadé’s readers are fortunate that after 20 years of reflection she has put her thoughts to paper – in words and drawings. An artist, illustrator and writer, Paris-based Ziadé is a child of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) who had reached what the French call l’âge de raison when the clashes began in Beirut. Although they had the possibility of leaving, her parents chose to remain in Lebanon throughout the war, resulting in Ziadé’s childhood being “regulated by a pattern of dreadful events”. She had skirted around the idea of writing about her experiences but didn’t feel ready until galvanized into action by the spate of assassination attempts and bombings that began in Lebanon in 2005, and by the Israeli bombings of 2006.

It took Ziadé three years of work; the result is a gem in the form of a graphic novel. The tone is poetic, deliberately child-like, extremely funny, caustic and very moving all at once. She chooses to focus on the first period of the war: the ensuing interval, beginning in the 1980s, with the introduction of the car bomb to the already horrific violence, was too bleak and depressing to portray, she said. She joyfully depicts the style of the 1970s, and the country’s wild, hallucinatory, descent into violence. Her gouache paintings show militiamen in flowered shirts and bell-bottoms, wearing masks or grinning in Ray Bans, the ever-present Kalashnikov or RPG at their side.

It’s the golden age of Beirut: while Ziadé, her brother and her mother are piling American and French products into their shopping carts, a growing number of lawless militiamen are stockpiling weapons which they can’t wait to use. That “shiny Western varnish, which the Lebanese are so proud of” is about to crack, writes Ziadé, describing the months prior to April 1975, the official date when the civil war began.

Everything she loves in the city, from walking to the Place des Martyrs with her mother, visiting her grandfather’s textile shop in the souk, or eating pastries from Bohsali’s, disappears from her childhood in a matter of months – her “Babylon” is gone forever. What remains are her memories, the fantasies she had of Beirut’s cinemas – whose names alone were enough to make her dream: the Roxy, the Métropole or the Rivoli. “Places where I will never have gone,” writes Ziadé.

She describes how the city divides into two, and how all of a sudden her environment becomes entirely Christian, with Virgins, crucifixes and the right-wing Kataeb party’s geometrical symbol of the cedar “as our only horizon”.

Ziadé is from a privileged Christian family, but her parents were close to Raymond Eddé, the only Christian leader who at the time did not have his own militia, and remained on good terms with Muslims. As a child she tries to make sense out of an increasingly complicated situation and at night seeks refuge with heroes she finds in reassuring Enid Blyton books. “Other, more sinister characters float above the city,” she writes, following with drawings of Arafat with a Medusa head, Bashir Gemayel dressed as an angel holding a bloodied knife, or Suleiman Frangieh as terrifying sort of gryphon. But there are moments of happiness as well, such as staying at her grandmother’s house for a year while her own family’s apartment is being repaired after shelling. These moments of respite allow Ziadé to recapture some of her childhood and perhaps gather strength for the decade that was to come: “We are at the end of the 1970s, the war has lasted for the past five years, and we don’t know that the worst is yet to come. . .” she writes.

From Banipal 41 - Celebrating Adonis

• An English-language edition, Bye Bye Babylon, translated from the French original by Olivia Snaije, will be published by Jonathan Cape in October 2011. Pbk, 204pp, £14.99, ISBN 97802240965195 

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